State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 38 Spring 1986


“A Regular Correspondence … On Matters Ornitholgical”

Dr D. L. Serventy: The doyen of Australian ornithology.

Dominic Louis Serventy was born at Brown Hill, Western Australia on 28 March 1904. He had a brilliant scholastic career at the University of Western Australia and later at Cambridge. On his return to Australia in 1934 he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Western Australia but left in 1937 to join the Fisheries Division of the C.S.I.R.O. In 1951 he transferred to the Wildlife Research Division to become Principal Research Scientist and Officer-in-Charge of the Western Australian Field Station, from which he retired in 1969.
His first published articles appeared in the Western Mail, Perth, and from March 1923 to September 1926 he contributed “Bush Notes” to the Farmer, Perth under the nom-de-plume of ‘Miletus.’ Since then hundreds of his scientific publications have appeared in Australian and international journals covering many aspects of natural history, principally ornithology. In 1948, in collaboration with H. M. Whittell, he published Birds of Western Australia which in 1976 reached its fifth edition. In 1971, with his brother Vincent and John Warham, he published The handbook of Australian sea-birds. Sea-birds have provided an abiding interest for Dr Seventy and his long-term work on the Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris is a classic.
From State Secretary for W. A. Branch of RAOU he rose to become President in 1947, and was made a Fellow in 1949. He is a Life Member and former President of the Western Australian Naturalists’ Club, and held the position of Editor from 1947 until 1980. In addition he has held office and acted as representative of some fifteen or so Australian and overseas committees and councils.
Understandably and deservedly many honours have been bestowed upon him, notably his appointment in 1972 as Ridder in the Most Excellent Order of the Golden Ark by his Royal Highness The Prince of the Netherlands, for outstanding service in the cause of nature conservation. He was awarded the Australian Natural History Medallion in 1956 and the Tasmanian Royal Society Medal for 1970. America, England, Germany, Argentina, France and South Africa have also seen fit to recognize his contributions to science. With his wonderful sense of history Dr Serventy has meticulouslyy preserved many files of correspondence with ornithologists of the day, and has recorded invaluable biographical data in his carefully researched obituaries. A great lover of books, he has gathered a superb library. It is therefore of great interest to present the letters initiating his correspondence with F. B. Lawson Whitlock which was to last for 31 years, until Whitlock's death in 1953. These letters, with many others, are now preserved in the RAOU Archives.


  • RAOU Archives.

  • Whittell, H. M., The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, Paterson Brokensha, 1954)

F. B. Lawson Whitlock (1860 — 1953).

Frederick Bulstrode Lawson Whitlock was born in Nottingham, England on 3 June 1860, and educated at Loughborough Grammar School in Leicestershire. His interest in natural history began at an early age and, like countless young boys before him, he made collections of butterflies and of birds’ eggs. After leaving school he worked as an accountant and in insurance. He commenced publishing articles on birds in his twenties and went on to produce several books. For a time he was Assistant Editor to H. Kirke Swann of The Ornithologist, so that when he arrived in Western Australia in 1901 to make his home there, his was already an established name in ornitholigy. He came to Australia for reasons of health and the rigourous life he led as a collector speaks wonders for our climate!
By August 1901 he was off on his first trip, prospecting. His companion was one L.F. Von Wieldt, who later joined the staff of the Western Australian Museum and put Whitlock in touch with their Honorary Ornithologist, A. W. Milligan. Milligan persuaded the Museum to finance some collecting
trips for Whitlock, and so began almost thirty years of travel, principally in Western Australia and often in extremely remote regions.
In 1908 he was engaged by H. L. White and, until White's death in 1927, Whitlock's main efforts were on his behalf although he also collected skins for Gregory M. Mathews. Whitlock's material is now in the H.L. White Collection, held by the Museum of Victoria, in the Mathews Collection in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and in the Western Australian Museum.
Whitlock was the first to obtain many nests and eggs, and in 1909 discovered the Grey Honeyeater Conophila whitei. His own name is perpetuated in several species. He was an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Australian Ornithologists’ Union and of the Western Australian Naturalists’ Club.
After retiring from active collecting he confined his efforts to searching for beach-washed specimens near his home at Bunbury, and entomology became his main interest. He spent his last years there with his daughter. He died on 15 June 1953.


  • Whittell, H. M., “Frederick Lawson Whitlock” The Emu, Vol. 39, No.4 (1940), p.279–285.

  • Whittell, H. M., The literature of Australian Birds (Perth, Paterson Brokensha, 1954).

  • Bryant, C. E. Obituary The Emu, Vol. 53, No. 3 (1953), p.268–269.

Gosnells Rd.,

Mr. F. Lawson Whitlock,
“Chiltern”, Tudor,
Dear Sir,
I am a young member of the RAOU (eighteen years of age next month) and though I am greatly interested in birds yet I have no companion of similar tastes, in my district. In response to a letter of mine asking for a personal correspondent in this state our secretary (Mr. Z. Gray) sent me the addresses of a few persons likely to become suitable correspondents. Your name was among those mentioned and I would be most gratified if you would consent to a regular correspondence between us on matters ornithological.
I go to the Perth Modern School and live on an orchard near the foot of the hills at Waddington and no doubt if you intend to write to me, you will be interested in a short description of the district.
The township is situated on the S.W.R., 10 miles from Perth, and about 3 miles from the Darling Ranges (see sketch next page). My “Beat” extends from a mile or so north of the Bickley brook to the north, to the Canning River in the south, and from the railway line in the west to several miles into the hills in the east. Of course I make periodic exursions into the surrounding country. North of the Bickley brook the prevalent timbers are banksia and jarrah nearer to the hills, and the soil is sandy.
South of the Gosnells Rd, and extending to the hills is a forest of jarrah, but of course, much of it has been cut down in the settled parts. In between (the area I know best) the soil is a sandy loam with a clay subsoil which prevents the water from the hills, in winter time, from soaking in. The result is that during the rainy season much of this portion of the district is under water, while in summertime none is to be had and the ground is as hard as concrete. In winter blue cranes are very common about here and they retreat to the swamps in summer. Along the Canning river and in the valleys opening out into the plain occur rich tracts of chocolate-red soil suitable for intense culture. The principal trees found in these “flats” are wandoos which occur chiefly close to the hills, the rest of the flats are mostly tree-less. As far as birds are concerned the hills are very interesting. In the thick jarrah forests, birds which are not found in the plains, are numerous. E.g. parrots, rufous tree creepers, redwinged blue wrens, bell magpies etc. To the west of the railway line are a series of swamps, but I do not go there often. A new reservior (Bickley bk. Service) has been constructed last year and it has attracted many water birds.
My local “checklist” contains the names of 58 birds but many have yet to be identified (mostly arboreal, wary, or nocturnal species).
Hoping that there is no obstacle in the way of our regular correspondence and eagerly waiting your reply.
Your fellow-member,
Dominic Louis Serventy R.A.O.U.
via Albany

Mr. D. L. Serventy, R.A.O.U.
Dear Sir,
I was glad to receive a letter from a young member of the R.A.O.U. I can well remember the time when I was a beginner, but I was very young indeed when I was first attracted by the [beauty?] of birds eggs and nests. I was in England then and ornithologising was not looked upon with favour in those districts where game preserving was the order of the day.
However as time went on I learned how to dodge unfriendly gamekeepers and my love for the science grew in spite of all. But here the freedom is just lovely.
I know your district slightly having put in a few months some years back at the Armidale side of the Jandakot area. I have been up the Canning River too by boat, but never into the hills, except a brief trip to [Kalamunda?]. The hills look very inviting. I suppose the birds inhabiting them are well known but there is always the chance of meeting with a distinguished visitor, driven from other parts by drought or other agency.
Jandakot did not impress me much, but at the lake were a few waders, including banded stilts. Some of the undisturbed swamps, with a good growth of reeds might harbour Harriers, [Coots] and crakes — also a Megalmus that might pay to look up. A bird I used to see or hear every day near Lake Jandakot was the wattle bird — []. It has a very curious series of notes. I had not a good opportunity for investigating what was really to be found there, however.
In the ranges, small birds inhabiting the tree tops might repay investigation; especially any with [? and no attractive] call-notes.
Down here we have a variety of country. I am living at a farm too, which includes a small orchard. I am situated at the Eastern end of Wilson's Inlet (Salt) a good haunt for wading birds at certain seasons. Ten miles away are the remains of the great Karri forests at Denmark. Around my home are belts of Karri or rather ridges, but the predominant trees are Red Gum, Jarrah, [Banksia] and Ti-tree. We have also large black-bog flats, very wet in the winter, but the haunt of Emu, wrens, quail, and a few pairs of Ground parrots. Not many genera such as magpies, Butcher birds, Honey-Eaters (Meliphaga) are quite absent. We occasionally have Sea Eagles, Ospreys and other visitors of [] species.
I shall be glad to hear from you at any time and to help you as far as is in the power of a very busy man.
Yours faithfully
F. Lawson Whitlock.

Mr. F. Lawson Whitlock,
Dear Sir,
I received your very interesting letter last week. I was pleased to see that this locality is not wholly unknown to you. My early schooldays were spent at Armadale, & about 11 years ago we lived for a short time at the Banjup side of Jandakot. The house was right out in the bush & because of the distance & my approaching school age, we did not occupy it for long. But it was (or seemed to me then) a fine place for birds, & other wild creatures. Every morning robins, willy wagtails & other small birds would throng on to the veranda & back-yard picking up crumbs & other tit-bits. Sometimes they would venture into an adjoining semi-detached room & on occasions I took advantage of this habit. After closing the door, it did not take long to capture the intruder. In this way I once caught a fantail & in the scuffle its long tail feathers came away. When released from an improvised cage some days later, the little chap still persisted in haunting the veranda & was familiar for a long while afterwards. On the whole, however I agree with you that the sandplains of Jandakot are poor in Birdlife. The hills however are of great interest for in them, one meets with birds now rarely seen in the coastal plains. Taking my own locality as an example; treecreepers, Bell magpies, red-winged blue wrens (M. elegans), Red-tailed Black Cockatoos (C. Nass) & King parrots I have never seen in the flats & Shrike-Robins, tree runners (Neositta), white shafted fantails, rosellas, “twentyeights” & white naped honeyeaters (Melithreptus chloropsis) but rarely so. In addition Banded blue wrens (M. splendens), whistlers (Paetycephila), spinebills, & Broadtailed tits (Apicalis) are more common in the hills than in the flats. On the other hand magpies, sacred kingfishers, cuckoos (Pallid & Bronze), Red wattle birds & crows appear to be more frequent in the
plains: while I have never seen kestrels, magpie larks, swallows, chats, “willy wagtails” & groundlarks in the hills.
As you say, strange species are sometimes noted. A few weeks ago I saw a large wild Turkey (Bustard) in the flats, only about a quarter of a mile from Waddington railway station. Also resident species are still being listed. Thus up to short time ago, I thought that all the Maluri found in the hills belonged to M. splendens, however one day I noticed a peculiarity in the colouration of one bird & on further investigation I found a small flock of Melurus elegans in amongst the reeds & tangled vegetation of a small creek. This information was of interest to the Perth Museum, & a week or so later I accompanied Mr. Lipfert to the spot but only M. splendens was obtained, the Red Winged Maluri evidently had gone further up the creek & we had not time enough to follow them.
The south coast country, especially Nornalup, has received much attention from the local press recently & descriptions of the inlets are now appearing in the “West Australian”. The descriptions of the country there, which I have never seen, make one long to visit it.
I was surprised to see that magpies & other common species of further north are absent from Wilson's inlet. Mr. Glanert tells me, however, that Bell magpies or “squeakers” which are rather rare up here, are so common in the south as to take the place of ordinary magpies. Tudor, I think, is not far from one of the recorded localities of Atrichornis clamosa. Do you think this peculiar & interesting bird still exists? The balance of evidence seems to be that it is now amongst the lost. Your note concerning ground parrots is interesting, as I had previously thought that they were extinct.
During the last month I have been observing the migratory habits of bee eaters particularly to see if they leave in two lots as they do in the east. Last year I found out that the first flocks left about the 4th of Feb & the second party on about the 20th. This year I had similar results. I would like to know if your observations confirm mine, also I am curious of whether bee eaters leave Australia for the northern islands or remain on the continent. In spring the birds arrive about October 6th in the Waddington district.
In closing I wish to express my appreciation of the fact that in the intervals of a busy life, you find time to write to me.
Yours sincerely,
D. A. Serventy

Mr. F. Lawson Whitlock, Tudor
Dear Sir,
I wrote to you soon after the receipt of your interesting letter of Feb. 27, but not having a reply I concluded that either you were absent on an expedition or that my letter had miscarried. If the latter has occurred this explanation will remove any suspicion of ingratitude which you may naturally feel.
One phase of bird study in which I am interested at present is whether crows (C. coronoides) migrate. My attention was first attracted a couple of years ago one December when I noticed large flocks flying southwards. The following December, observing the same thing I commenced keeping a record of passing flocks of crows. Though my opportunities were limited to weekends and holidays yet the records show the general trend of migration (for such I am convinced it is, and not irregular wandering) during the different months.
On peculiar fact is that the movement continues with varying intensity throughout the year, excepting the breeding season. During December and January the movement is towards the south, but during the end of the latter month birds are seen beginning the northern journey which continues till about the end of August when the migration ceases. During the winter months the flocks are smaller and not so much in evidence as during the winter. However this movement is not so regular as would appear from the above, odd birds are seen flying northward in summer and southwards in winter, contrary to the general direction in those months.
As we are situated at the foot of the ranges, it may be that we are in the line of migration, the hills serving as a landmark, or barrier to extension eastwards as crows are essentially birds of the open plain. These records extend from Dec. 1920, and if there “is anything in it” I intend to make it the subject of my maiden paper to the “Emu”. I have examined the various volumes on ornithology at the library but can find no mention of the phenomenon.
Now sir, you being the formost field-naturalist in the state, and having so great experience in most parts of it, I would be pleased if you could supply me with any information concerning this subject, if it has ever been brought before your notice; and if so whether it extends throughout the state or is only a local movement.
I see by the last “Emu” that Mr. R. Hall is bringing out another book on the migration and distribution of Australian birds, which may possibly deal with this subject, but as yet I have not seen the work.
Yours faithfully,
D. A. Serventy.
Mill Stream Station
via R NW

Mr D. L. Serventy
Dear Sir,
You will see by the above address, I am up in the Nth. West being on another scientific expedition on behalf of Mr. H. L. White.
I got your letter dated 11th March in due course & fully intended to reply to it. I think you will forgive me for not doing so when you learn that in April I had a very bad driving smash. I was much cut about the head & face & my right arm & shoulder, also badly injured. I was laid up or partially so for a good many weeks & any exertion or task that I could avoid I was glad to postpone.
Your letter refers to Malurus Elegans. When I first took up my block of land at Wilson's Inlet, this wren was not by any means a rarity & I even found a nest not far away from my house. But since so many settlers have come into the district & there is so much burning of scrub (much of it quite useless to do so) the species has now become somewhat rare. Also bush cats have greatly increased to the detriment of local bird life. I consider M. elegans one of our most beautiful wrens, & it must not be forgotten it is peculiar to the west.
Bee-eaters rarely occur on the South Coast though I [have] occasionally seen them.
In migrating possibly the birds of the [ ] leave first strange as it may appear this is the case in Europe with most of the waders receding in the far north. In the tropics I think the bee eater is more or less resident. I have never failed to find pairs near [ ] in the rivers. No doubt you know the rains in the NW occur chiefly in the summer months so insect life is plentiful. I saw a bee-eater snap up a white butterfly the other day.
Magpies are very rare at Wilson's inlet but the “Squeaker”(Strepera) is only too plentiful & does a lot of damage to the fruit especially to the apples in March.
I am sadly afraid the noisy scrub bird has gone for good. People keep seeing & hearing it so they say, but I am the only one who has had no luck in this respect. We have several pairs of birds that live at the house; including robins, scrub robins (Eopsaltria) & Fantails (Rhipidura). One of the latter often comes right into the house & will snatch a fly off ones shoulder. On one occasion it perched on my knee as I was drinking a cup of tea.
I am glad to learn you are contemplating a paper on the migrations of crows in the “Emu”. Don't be afraid to state what you think to be a fact. The habit of birds differ in a huge country like Australia, with its diversifed conditons, at home crows only come in the hot weather say from January to the first rains in April. Should a good rain come in March they clear out at once. They are an awful nuisance in the orchards. We had a flock of thirty or so last year. They caught me busy or absent one day & utterly spoiled a fine tree full of ripening apricots. I should say the migration of crows is produced by scarcity or otherwise of food. During the hot weather the ground gets baked so hard that they cannot dig & search for their natural food. Magpies turn over bark or small pieces of wood or moss where they find centipedes & such creatures hiding. The crow likes his food [providing?] for him in the shape of maggots or semi putrid flesh, hence their abundance around homesteads at sheep stations. But there is not much that comes amiss to a hungry crow. Personally I have never seen flocks of crows migrating in Australia.
But I have seen the hooded crows arriving on the English coasts in large numbers from Northern Europe. Curiously enough English rooks migrate in some numbers to the continent of Europe & the continental rooks winter in England. But the subject of migration proves, the more it is studied, to be a very complex one. I hope Robt. Hall will produce a better book on the subject, than his so called “Key to the birds of Australia”. A book of little value indeed to the field naturalist & one you need not wish to possess, for it leaves one as a rule in more doubt than before, when one tries to identify a species by its aid.
If you have the chance try to make out if the migrating crows you see are old birds with white eyes or younger ones with brown eyes. Of course one wants to be pretty near or obtain the use of a good field-glass to be able to do so. Also estimate the [height? ] & direction of flight & how long the migration lasts. There are plenty of crows around the home stead here but just now they seem to be immature birds.
I shall be passing through Perth sometime in November I expect. Perhaps we could arrange to meet at the Museum & have a chat.
Please excuse more. I am sitting on the ground writing this on my knee.
Yours faithfully
F. Lawson Whitlock

Dear Mr. Whitlock,
Your most welcome letter reached me during the week. I was sorry to hear of your accident, but am glad that it did not prevent your journey to the N.W. Millstream station is not far from Wallal & was probably in the belt of totality during the recent eclipse of the sun. If so you may have observed the effect of the phenomenon on animal life. The Cordilly (or Cordillo) Downs expedition reported that “some time before totality, great numbers of gaiahs came flying in from all directions, being evidently perturbed by the diminishing sunlight. Camels & other animals at the station showed uneasiness.”(Vide Press)
I look forward to your visit to Perth & hope that I may have the pleasure of accompanying you for a day's rambling in the Darling Ranges. Unfortunately I have to sit for an examination during the third week in November so if you chance to arrive during that period I shall be unable to meet you.
However, hoping for the best & wishing you success up north;
I am, yours faithfully,
D. L. Serventy